The monkey hoodie scandal
If you haven’t seen it already, H&M created an ad for new clothing which sparked a humongous international row about racism and created a huge dispute about diversity-sensitive campaigning in social media. The ad involved a little black boy wearing a hoodie saying ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ which led to an enormous backlash against H&M. Celebrities such as G-Eazy (rapper) and The Weekend (singer) ended their sponsorship and association with the clothing company and furthermore, Diddy (rapper) and LeBron James (NBA basketball player) shamed the clothing company publicly on social media for racial insensitivity.
MY QUESTION IS: HOW DID THE EXPERT MARKETING TEAM LET THIS HAPPEN AND WHY DIDN’T SOMEONE ON THE MARKETING TEAM ASK?
Perhaps the following;
Power distance index
Hofstede’s (1991) cultural dimensions theory involves a dimension called the ‘power distance index’ which measures the “extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions (such as family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. The inequality is defined from below (the followers). In other words, a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. A higher index suggests that there is a well-established and implemented hierarchy in society, without any doubt or reason (it is what it is). Lower index signifies that people can question authority and attempt to distribute power and these indexes can differ by culture. This can also be applied to the work place and industry where it is represented as the superior-subordinate relationship (Bochner & Hesketh, 1994).
So why does this relate to the H&M scandal-
Related to this, is the issue of asking questions. We know that some people do not ask questions (even when they want to) and this can be explained by the power distance index. Essentially, people lower down the ‘totem pole’ don’t end up asking questions as they believe they are not allowed to or have the right to. Pluralistic ignorance is also where no one wants to ask any potentially dangerous or embarrassing questions. SURELY it must have crossed at least one H&M employee’s mind that this could possibly be seen as racially insensitive? Especially with the heightened awareness of this within advertisement. Perhaps due to the perceived power distance between themselves and the ‘higher’ ranked more superior employees, they felt they could not ask and thus let loose an extremely disastrous campaign.
Cockpit culture theory (ask or crash)
Another disastrous example potentially explained by people not asking questions and the power distance index is the fatal plane crash of the Korean Air Flight 801. Malcolm Gladwell (2008) suggests that a high-power distance index and Korean social norms caused the ‘lower ranked’ pilot not to directly ask the more ‘superior’ captain about the possible dangerous weather but only provide subtle hints and that this failure of communication led to a plane crash killing lots of people.
Overall, it is apparent that increased power distance index and thus not asking questions (pluralistic ignorance) can potentially lead to some tragic events. I thought this was an interesting way to think about the H&M scandal and how the whole event could have possibly been prevented just by someone asking!
Bochner, S., & Hesketh, B. (1994). Power distance, individualism/collectivism, and job-related attitudes in a culturally diverse work group. Journal of cross-cultural psychology, 25(2), 233-257.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.
Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations. Intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival. Software of the mind. London: Mc Iraw-Hill.